Game to watch – Liverpool vs Tottenham
As Matt Stead wrote this week, Jurgen Klopp is the victim of his early season success. From an outsider’s perspective, a manager who took over a team who had won four of their 11 games all season, took them to eighth, effected a large turnover of players, has a young squad and now has that team one point from the top four and four points from second would not be under any pressure. Welcome to the Premier League, where the talk of crisis is deafening.
One area in which Liverpool have been impressive all season is against the best teams in the league. Seven matches against the current top six have produced three wins and four draws; they are the only member of the group to be unbeaten in that mini-league. That only makes Saturday’s visit of Tottenham more intriguing, for Mauricio Pochettino’s side have lost fewer games than any other Premier League side. Their victories over Chelsea and Manchester City were two of the most impressive performances of the season so far. On their day, Tottenham really can overpower anyone.
With Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City facing Hull, Watford and Bournemouth respectively this weekend, this becomes a ‘must not lose’ fixture for both teams at Anfield. Yet with Liverpool struggling against the league’s lesser lights who sit back and then pick off a creaking defence, Klopp will be desperate for a feel-good victory that would render any talk of crisis redundant. Lose, and those shouting their criticism will only go and fetch a taller soapbox.
Pochettino too will know the importance of an away win to rid supporters of their own doubts. There isn’t much to be pessimistic about in a Spurs world, but here is a statistic to pour some cold water on proceedings: Since May 2015, Tottenham have only won one away game against a current top-eight side. Addressing that record at Anfield would give them a huge lift in a top-four race that shows no sign of letting up in intensity.
Player to watch – Anthony Martial
– One league start this year, when he was taken off after 65 minutes with Manchester United trailing 1-0.
– One league goal since October.
– One full 90 minutes in the league all season.
– No shots on target in the league in 2017.
– Actually, no shots of any kind in the league in 2017.
– One chance created in 2017.
Those statistics don’t reflect a forward who is playing badly, they reflect a forward who isn’t playing at all. That has to change if Martial isn’t going to be pushed so far from Manchester United’s centre stage that he’s stood in the car park crying.
Team to watch – Leicester City
I still can’t quite understand the logic of Leicester’s ‘this club is together and united’ public call-to-arms. Offering a public vote of confidence in your manager only underlines the severity of the situation that provoked such a statement while simultaneously bringing more attention to it. If people were discussing Ranieri potentially being sacked on Sunday, it became back-page news on Tuesday.
The vote of confidence also provoked much debate about who is to blame for Leicester’s problems this season, with most laying the blame at the feet of the players. That’s all very well and wonderfully respectful to Ranieri, but that’s not how these situations work. There are no more transfer windows between now and May, so if Leicester lose their next three matches then the club’s owners cannot change the players. They can and will change the manager.
Therein lies the other foolish element to the vote of confidence: It describes the situation as is, not what will be. No matter how many times a club says ‘We’re standing by our man’, only results dictate whether the manager will remain in employment or not. If Leicester really are intending to keep Ranieri in position even as the club are relegated – which the statement seems to suggest – there’s no point whatsoever making that view public. Deliberately or otherwise, this felt like the club’s ‘sh*t or bust’, a roll of the dice to try and halt a slide that the players and manager have so far proved incapable of addressing.
The one thing that such a public insistence of loyalty does require is a reaction. Beating Derby County in an FA Cup replay will not change the mood at Leicester, but winning a first league game away from home since April might. Lose again, and it’s impossible not to think that talking up Ranieri’s position in public was a tired example of words speaking quieter than actions.
Manager to watch – Sam Allardyce
We can’t put Allardyce in this section again, can we? Yes, we really can – that’s what losing four-zip at home to Sunderland does. When David Moyes’ side score 13% of their total league goals for the season in a five-minute period before half-time against you, it’s hardly taking a huge leap to suggest that all is not well.
It’s also reasonable to suggest that Crystal Palace would be doing no worse had they left Alan Pardew in charge, although that’s intended less as a compliment to Pardew and more an insult to Allardyce. If it is too much to say that Allardyce ‘guarantees’ you relegation survival, for no manager can do that, you would at least bank on him instigating an improvement in performance from the guy who came before. So far, we’re simply not seeing that.
Allardyce has his excuses, of course. Crystal Palace recruited four players in the January transfer window, and the manager will insist that he still getting to grips with a squad that was on its knees in the last days of Pardew’s tenure. Yet the window for reasonable excuses is short. Palace’s last five away league opponents are Chelsea, Southampton, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United, and they still have Tottenham and Arsenal to come at Selhurst Park. Palace have managed to avoid defeat in one home game since September, but they really to need to start picking up points soon.
Crystal Palace’s only forward steps – the wins at Bournemouth and at home to Southampton and draw at Watford – were all followed by defeats in which they failed to score. Having gained a reputation as a manager who creates and retains a positive mentality among players, Allardyce is struggling to find his groove after being stung by the perils of international management and his own bravado.
One-on-one battle to watch – Andy Carroll vs West Brom’s central defenders
‘Gareth Southgate will check out West Ham’s Andy Carroll on Saturday as England boss prepares to name squad for Germany and Lithuania matches,’ read the MailOnline’s headline on Thursday morning.
Two months ago that would have made us raise our eyebrows higher than a Carlo Ancelotti tribute act, but now it seems perfectly logical. Daniel Sturridge isn’t playing, Jamie Vardy isn’t scoring, Wayne Rooney is no longer a striker and Danny Welbeck must be left alone to gain strength after injury. If it’s a good time to be called Harry Kane, it’s also a good time to be an Andy Carroll back from injury and scoring goals.
Carroll’s continuous fight against his body’s weaknesses set the bar low, but it is still extraordinary to think that the striker has scored 9% of his career Premier League goals in the last four matches. It also demonstrates that, should he stay fit, he will always be a consideration for international call-up. No other England striker offers quite the same as handy Andy.
Football League game to watch – Wolves vs Newcastle United
I’m going to take this time to have a little moan about the lack of live Football League matches recently. Without going all PFM, on Saturday and Sunday alone there are live games from nine different European countries on British television, and yet Wolves vs Newcastle is the only Football League match covered.
In understand that the figures for League One and League Two football are low, but surely not as low as for Feyenoord vs Groningen on Sky Sports 5 on Saturday night? I also know that there are limits as to the number of matches broadcast, but it still makes me really sad that I can’t watch lower-league football more often. Particularly given the young talent being increasingly scouted at that level and the ongoing sagas at many clubs.
So, in the absence of Peterborough vs Sheffield United, Oldham vs Coventry, Portsmouth vs Accrington, Yeovil vs Leyton Orient or a derby between Plymouth and Exeter, watch Newcastle United for the 11th time in the league this season. Yes, 11; variety truly isn’t the spice of Sky Sports life.
European game to watch – Monaco vs Metz
In truth it’s not exactly a bumper weekend of European football. Bayern Munich play Ingolstadt, Real Madrid play Osasuna, Barcelona play Alaves, Juventus play Cagliari and Paris St Germain don’t play until Monday evening. Hibs vs Hearts is the only derby game live on British television, and that’s a match in which Grant Holt can reasonably expect to start. Yes, that Grant Holt.
Instead, enjoy your Sunday evening come down with Europe’s top scorers. As well as knocking Tottenham out of the Champions League, Monaco have scored 70 goals in 24 league matches, which is really a very silly number indeed.
Nine of their players have scored four or more league goals, and Radamel Falcao has 14. Kylian Mbappe is being touted as the next Thierry Henry, Bernardo Silva and Thomas Lemar are midfield dreamboats and Fabinho and Djibril Sidibe are forging reputations as superb young defenders. This weekend Monaco host Metz, a team against whom they scored seven times in the return fixture. How many will they manage at home?
Where is Mike Dean?
Mike Dean will be donning the leather driving gloves – “It just feels like a second skin on the long-haul trips” – and travelling along the M62 and up the A1 from the Wirral to the Riverside Stadium. The big question is whether Dean nips up the A19, which can be a traffic blackspot, or sets off a little earlier in order to continue on the A1 to Darlington and bask in the warm glow of Scotch Corner services. West Cornwall Pasty Company and a Greggs? Oh, now you know savoury pastry is my vice.
Ten live matches to watch (because ‘cold snap’ means ‘I’m not leaving my sofa, nerds’)
Melbourne City vs Brisbane Roar (Saturday, 8.50am, BT Sport 1)
Real Betis vs Valencia (Saturday, 12.00pm, Sky Sports 4)
Arsenal vs Hull City (Saturday, 12.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Liverpool vs Tottenham (Saturday, 5.30pm, BT Sport 1)
Monaco vs Metz (Saturday, 7.00pm, BT Sport 3)
Hearts vs Hibernian (Sunday, 12.30pm, Sky Sports 2)
Burnley vs Chelsea (Sunday, 1.30pm, Sky Sports 1)
Swansea vs Leicester City (Sunday, 4.00pm, Sky Sports 1)
Las Palmas vs Sevilla (Sunday, 5.30pm, Sky Sports 2)
Atletico Madrid vs Celta Vigo (Sunday, 7.45pm, Sky Sports 1)
Writer to watch – Daniel Storey